Spotlight on… wild boar

Editor-in-chief Peter Carr considers the wild boar’s successful re-establishment in the UK and the various methods of controlling the species

The wild boar (Sus scrofa), ancestor of the domestic pig, is a species native to much of central Europe, the Mediterranean region (including North Africa’s Atlas Mountains) and parts of Asia.

Although the wild boar had become extinct in Great Britain by the 17th century, wild breeding populations have recently become re-established, following escapes from boar farms. These are a continuing worry to DEFRA, as it is believed that total eradication of the species in Britain will be virtually impossible. Internationally, the wild boar is recognised as an extremely invasive species, with numbers increasing in many European countries. The typical pattern for a population increase sees feral populations appearing to remain low for a number of years before a sudden explosion in numbers.

Escape and establishment

Captive wild boar in Britain have been kept since the 1970s. The main laws pertaining to keeping wild boar, and to the protection of the environment from invasive species, are the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, the Dangerous Animals Act 1976 and the Zoo Licensing Act 1981.

The original wild boar farm stock was of mainly French origin, but as the industry rapidly expanded from 1987 onwards, farmers added to the original stock with animals sourced from both western European and eastern European origins. There are now about 100 wild boar farms in the UK, including 30 or so in Scotland, with approximately 2,000 breeding sows.

Sporadic escapes of captive wild boar from wildlife parks since the 1970s and the severe gales of the late 1980s, bringing down livestock fencing, led to a significant number of animals being freed. On 21 October 1998, the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries confirmed the presence of two populations of free-roaming wild boar living in Britain.

It is estimated that there are no more than 1,000 wild boar roaming free in England, but this number could be as high as 5,000. Boar have been spotted during pheasant drives in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and East Somerset – parts of England that are supposedly clear of boar. The Forest of Dean and the New Forest populations have received a great deal of media attention over the last few years and it remains to be seen whether these populations will be allowed to prosper.

Several other substantial escapes have been reported and many of these may have resulted in boar breeding in the wild. These include 27 animals close to Catterick, North Yorkshire, in 1993, 10 near York in 2003 and a small number in the Bodmin area in Cornwall in 2002.

It is likely that wild boar originally occurred throughout most of Scotland, wherever there was suitable forest for them to live in. Fossil and archaeological remains have been found in Caithness and Sutherland, Perthshire, Fife, Berwickshire, Wigtownshire and the islands of Colonsay and Orkney. Wild boar numbers dwindled over the centuries, as the forest cover shrank, and excessive hunting for both meat and sport accelerated the species’ disappearance. An exact date for the wild boar’s extinction in Scotland is unknown, but it is generally considered to have been in the late 16th Century.

A number of wild boar farms exist in Scotland, and animals that have escaped must account for the boar that was photographed roaming wild near Fort William in September 2006. This animal was said to be the first evidence in at least 400 years that there have been free-living wild boar in Scotland.

There are presently two thriving wild boar colonies in Dumfries and Galloway – one in forestry north of Dumfries and the other in forestry to the south-east of Carsphairn. These populations are bound to meet soon – if they haven’t already. Wild boar can disperse long distances from their birth area.

After 300 years, the wild boar is back in the UK

Appearance and behaviour

The body of the wild boar is compact, with a large head and short legs. The coat consists of stiff bristles with finer fur underneath. The colour varies from dark grey to black or brown, but there are great regional differences in colour. In western Europe, boar generally have brown coats, while in eastern Europe black coats are more common. During winter the fur is much denser and depending on the area, much of this hair is lost during the summer months.

An adult boar’s average weight is 120-200lb, though there is a great deal of variation between different areas. A French boar shot in the Ardennes in 1999 weighed 550lb. But Romanian and Russian boars are the biggest, reaching weights of over 650lb.

When a sounder of boar arrives at the high seat, the largest pig is usually the mother. Mature males usually arrive alone but often they will come to a feeding sounder and their presence is usually shown by the uneasiness of the feeding pigs. He may be wary and circle the area before making an approach; the smaller boar will then keep their distance. Apart from bulk, male boar have a thicker-set neck and shoulders than sows and a wide dorsal stripe of bristles may be evident.

Thick forestry with areas of dense undergrowth for daytime resting, adjacent to rich feeding and a water source is prime habitat for boar. This animal is adaptable and opportunistic, which often brings it into conflict with farming interests as wild boar respect no boundaries when it comes to monopolising food sources.

Wild boar are nocturnal creatures. They are also certainly not fussy eaters and will eat just about anything they can get hold of, from tubers, root crops, fruit and nuts to invertebrates, amphibians, carrion and deer fawns. Beech mast and acorns are an autumn favourite and maize is the most popular bait food on the continent to draw this animal into shooting range of high-seats. Plant material forms about 90 per cent of their diet.

Damage can be severe, not just to standing crops but to grazing pastures where the animal turns over turf when rooting for invertebrates.

Wild boars live in groups called sounders, containing around 20 animals. A typical sounder would be two or three sows together with their offspring. Adult males are generally not part of the sounder unless following an in-season sow, and are usually found alone.

Breeding usually occurs in October and November. Gestation is an average of 115 days, and farrowing happens in the spring. Up to 12 piglets can be born, though between five and eight is more usual. Piglets have a characteristic striped pattern on their coats, with longitudinal bands of light brown and cream. This gives way to a solid ginger colour before full adult colouration is achieved at about six months.

This animal is extremely vocal in company of its own, and feeding sounders may be heard from a great distance. Snorts, grunts and squeals generally signify different age groups and sizes attempting to assert dominance during feeding. A low snuffling sound is produced when foraging or rooting, but wary boar can be quiet.

A group of wild boar on the move

Shooting methods

The actual management of this species cannot be compared to deer management – indeed, the term ‘stalking’ can hardly be applied to the pursuit of wild boar. There are two main methods of dealing with them: driving them out of their daytime refuge with beaters and hounds to a team of guns, or feeding them to within range of a high seat.

Driving boar is by far the most common method on the continent, with countries as far and wide as Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria operating a thriving trade in boar shooting tourism every year. In England, of course, this method would not be possible under current law. North of the border the restrictions on hunting with hounds differ, but there is still a very fine line when one interprets the law, so caution is employed by most land managers with boar on their ground, and high seat shooting is the main method used in Britain.

Continental boar are, depending on level of disturbance, crepuscular or nocturnal, normally foraging early morning and late afternoon or at night but resting for periods during night and day if they are not pressured. British boar tend not to behave in this bimodal pattern, and are mostly nocturnal. Great Britain is a heavily populated small island, and even our remote woodlands suffer regular disturbances throughout the year. Therefore, to successfully shoot boar you must be prepared to stay out all night in a high seat.

On the continent, most high seat shooting activity centres on the full moon, but this is not because the boar are more active during this lunar phase. It is because the law forbids the use of any artificial aid mounted on a rifle, so a clear night with a bright a moon and quality optics are a necessity. Thankfully, UK law allows us to use lamps, night vision and thermal imaging for this kind of work. Some may scorn the use of such devices, but in the context of population management they are essential, and many German hunters are currently lobbying for a change in their law to help control their own burgeoning boar population.

A low-intensity red-filtered light, just powerful enough to illuminate the boar for a safe and accurate shot, is enough. White light is useless. Night vision is a godsend, and thermal imaging takes us to new levels because one can even look through cover for a heat signature.

For shooting boar, the calibre used should be no less than .270, using a heavy bullet with controlled expansion. These are big animals, and they take some stopping. After the shot, the pig may run some distance before falling. There is very little blood at the shot strike, because the thick, loose skin and fat closes up the bullet wound when the animal moves. Look for cut hairs at the strike site, and for blood further along its direction of travel. Following up wounded boar is not for the faint-hearted and one should always be ready for a rapid follow-up shot. Tracking is best done with the aid of a dog.

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